PRINT Summer 1981


The Shock of the New

“WHEN WATCHING A MOVIE,” writes Robert Hughes, “one only has two choices—go or stay. With television, there is a third: change the channel.” Channel-switching, he claims, has accustomed us to receiving information as a montage of images. While the subject of The Shock of the New is modern art, its armature is undeniably television; it is a fast-paced collage of themes, ideas and names, pasted together with Hughesian wit.

After seeing most of the TV series from which the book evolved, it is impossible really to “read” it; one “hears” the sentences rumble forth in Hughes’ resonant Australian voice and “sees” the pictures tumble about kaleidoscopically as they did on the tube. Perhaps this is just as well, for Hughes’ approach to his subject is as art historically eccentric as it is entertaining.

The book is organized in eight theme chapters, none of which makes much linear sense (nor are they intended to; Hughes covers himself on this point right off in the introduction). However, he is at his best when theme and art do cohere: “Trouble in Utopia,” on modern architecture, and “Culture as Nature,” on Pop art and its relation to the mass media, are the high points of the book. “The Faces of Power,” about European art and society after World War I, leapfrogs from Dada to Russian Constructivism to fascist architecture to Guernica, leaving the reader reeling, but Hughes’ insights into “official” architectural style make the spin well worthwhile. When he writes, of Mussolini’s Palace of Italian Civilization, that “. . . twenty-five years later, most new American universities, particularly in southern California, would have at least one building that looked like it. As if by osmosis it became the reigning style for cultural centres and other buildings emblematic of civic high-mindedness . . . ” and follows this up with shots of Lincoln Center and the Lyndon B. Johnson Library, he puts his finger on a frightening fact. And he drives the point home when he observes, in reference to the Albany Mall. “What speaks from these stones is not the difference between American free enterprise and, say, Russian socialism, but the similarities between the corporate and bureaucratic states of mind, irrespective of country or ideology. . . . One could see any building at Albany Mall with an eagle on top or a swastika, or a hammer and sickle; it makes no difference to the building.”

The least successful chapter, to my mind, is “The View from the Edge,” which jumbles up Romanticism, Expressionism, Transcendentalism and Abstract Expressionism. Vincent Van Gogh is used as the link between Romanticism and Expressionismm Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec appears briefly, as does Constantin Brancusi. Chaim Soutine jumps to Willem de Kooning (because de Kooning liked Soutine’s paintings); de Kooning (because of expressing “anxieties in the human body”) leads on to Francis Bacon. Georgia O’Keeffe is cited as the 20th century’s “outstanding exponent” of Transcendentalism; Mark Rothko and Barnett Newman are dismissed as “the theological wing of the New York School.” Rothko failed because he was “obsessed with the moral possibility that his art could go beyond pleasure and carry the full burden of religious meanings.” One cannot help but wonder if Hughes greatest difficulty with this art is not, perhaps, its antipathy to the esthetics of television.

The Shock of the New is structured for, and by, TV. Hughes, as author/ narrator, is funny, opinionated, a brilliant phrase-maker and performer. “Corbusier’s particular enemy was the street, and on it he waged unremitting (if, mercifully, verbal) war.” “ . . . The most severe rebuke to the body was made . . . by a Dutch designer named Gerrit Rietveld.” “ . . . The lesson [of Cézanne] was lost on Bernard, as it has necessarily been lost on generations of apple-faceting art students since.” Oldenburg is “the thinking man’s Walt Disney”; David Hockney “the Cole Porter of figurative painting.” This kind of writing makes for marvelous, painless reading. It also resembles the patter of a TV host.

Hughes comments implicitly on the usual TV “culture package” by producing the exact opposite. When, after a tasteful but tuneful classical theme, one is quietly greeted by Alistair Cooke sitting on a chesterfield sofa with a leather-bound copy of the evening’s novel on his lap, the intended message is clear: you have left the domain of TV and entered that of literature. The discreet commercial, “made possible by a grant from, . . .” conspires to promote this notion. Soap operas are bought by products; culture is brought by grants. Hughes, on the other hand, exploits the character of commercial television to the hilt. Much of the imagery on the screen is not of art at all. Jarring blasts of rock music, flashes of street scenes and signs, transitionless jumps from one location to another, mimic the effects of channel-switching with their abrupt shifts in volume, pitch and scale. Hughes often invokes the standard nightly-news technique of talking head/ cut to action/cut back, quick moves that bombard the viewer with visual information but leave no time for digestion. On one such occasion, memorable for its impact in the film, Hughes announces: "The death of modern architecture can be pinpointed, not to the year, but to the minute . . . then cuts to a shot of the dynamiting in 1972 of Pruitt-Igoe, St. Louis, Missouri’s ill-fated housing project. Interestingly, although this is a focal moment in the show and the quintessential example of modern architecture’s social failure, Pruitt-Igoe is not mentioned in the book.

In a way it’s too bad that the traditional art-book format cannot reflect the visual assault that gave the shows their unmistakably television-y character. For in the end The Shock of the New is not a history of modern art, but eight essays on 20th-century culture. They are carefully structured to underscore the role of technology and the spread of information, culminating, of course, in the rise of the mass media, which presided over the death of the avant-garde and which supplied Hughes with his vehicle. He develops this theme throughout the book, touching on it again and again: referring to the failure of Albert Speer’s architecture, he says, “The Nazis could not scale up the politics of the agora to the dimensions of the Thousand-Year Reich, by bringing all the people to the Führer. The solution would have been to bring the leader into everyone’s living room, by television. . . . ” Hughes’ enterprise should be read/viewed/judged not as a model of art-historical rectitude, but as an ebullient, often brilliant, performance, as television at its deliberate worst—and best.


Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New, (New York: Alfred A. Knopf), 424 pages, 261 illustrations.

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